Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Remembering an Unsung Hero

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution posts about "The Man Who Killed the Draft":
The influence of Milton Friedman in ending conscription is well-known. But an economist named William Meckling arguably played a larger role, read the story.
Here's some of the story, as told in 1999 by David Henderson:
If you are an American male under age 44, take a moment of silence to thank William H. Meckling, who died last year at age 76. Even though you probably haven't heard of him, he has had a profound effect on your life. What he did was help to end military conscription in the United States.

Between 1948 and 1973, here's what you knew if you were a healthy male born in the U.S.A.: the government could pluck you out of almost any activity you were pursuing, cut your hair, and send you anywhere in the world....

Bill Meckling didn't think that was right....He had been drafted into the army in World War II and witnessed the government's incredibly wasteful use of manpower when it could pay below-market wages. He tucked that lesson away and would use it 25 years later.

Meckling went on to become an economist. In 1962 [sic] he was named the first dean of the University of Rochester's new business school, where he continued until 1983....

When the [President's Commission on an All-Volunteer Force] was created, in 1969, the members were not unanimous on ending the draft. In his recent coauthored book, Two Lucky People, Mr. Friedman writes that 5 of the 15 commissioners -- including himself, Mr. Greenspan, and Mr. Wallis -- were against the draft to begin with. Five members were undecided, and 5 were prodraft. Yet when the commission's report came out less than a year later and became a paperback book, all 15 members favored ending the draft.

What happened in between? That's where Bill Meckling comes in.

Meckling was chosen as executive director of the commission. As soon as he started his work, he got a nasty surprise: he had thought that everyone involved was opposed to the draft and that his job would be narrower than it turned out to be. "I thought that I was hired to estimate supply curves," he joked in a 1979 speech; he neither intended nor desired to get into a debate over conscription. But Meckling quickly adjusted to his new position. He hired some economists (who estimated those supply curves) as well as some historians; members of both groups wrote papers making a strong historical and philosophical case against the draft. The commission's work was done in less than a year, under budget and ahead of schedule. Three years later, the draft was dead....

...Many of you who have made or are now making your fortunes would not have done so if the draft had been in the way. Consider Bill Gates, who in 1975 dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft: during the draft years, young men like him who left college risked being certified as prime military meat. Computer programmers and other IT workers, who often do their best work relatively early in life, regularly drop out of college now because high-paying, interesting jobs beckon. If we still had the draft -- even a peacetime draft -- many wouldn't have that chance.

People often wonder why today's 20-somethings have such entrepreneurial spirit. One reason, I believe, is that a whole generation has grown up without the draft looming over its head. For that I thank, among others, Martin Anderson, Milton Friedman, W. Allen Wallis, and William H. Meckling. Bless them all.
When I left graduate school in 1963 and went to work for a defense think-tank in the D.C. area, Bill Meckling headed the division to which I was assigned. Bill didn't leave the think-tank to become dean of the B-school at Rochester until 1964 or 1965. Anyway, the rest of the story is right about Bill and his role in ending the draft. Some of the economists and historians who worked on the staff of the commission were seconded from the defense think-tank where I worked. In fact, the staff was housed in the same building, though in separate quarters. The intellectual and physical proximity of the commisstion's staff to the think-tank was no coincidence; the University of Rochester had held the contract to oversee the think-tank since 1968.

In 1983, as Bill was nearing retirement as dean of Rochester's B-school, the university's oversight of the think-tank was under fire from then-Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. (That's another story.) Rochester's president thought it prudent to review the think-tank's management practices. Bill was a member of the university's review team. One of his tasks was to interview me about quality control (I was responsible for reviewing the think-tank's formal research publications). It was the last time I saw Bill Meckling -- an economist who truly advanced the cause of liberty in America.